The philosophy around going meatless or adopting a vegetarian lifestyle has become increasingly popular. People are being more aware of foods that are nutrient dense (and those less so) which helps them to stay healthy and fit. So is veering towards a plant-based approach the best way to go? A growing number of people seem to think so. A Vegetarian resource group conducted a poll and found that there was rise in people adopting vegetarianism/veganism compared to previous year’s data in USA, similar data was shown for Europe, Israel and India as well.
Before we fall in to the discussion of “Should people become Vegetarian?” however, it’s important to understand what vegetarianism actually means as well as the benefits and potential risks associated with it.
“Vegetarian” broadly refers to those who restricts consumption of animal products like meat, fish, poultry etc., and largely rely on plant based foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, dairy, pulses etc., for living. Within this group, there are various levels of vegetarians. These are classified from most restrictive to those who are less so.
- Vegan : They do not consume animal products or animal by-products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk/milk products, honey etc. Also, they don’t use animal products like silk, wool, leather etc for commercial use. In other words, these are individuals who not only do not eat animals, but who also choose not to use products that come from animals.
- Lacto-Vegetarian: These individuals don’t consume meat, poultry, fish or eggs. But, they readily consume milk and milk products like yogurt, and cheese. Most of the Vegetarians in South Asian subcontinent fall under this category.
- Ovo-Vegetarian: They avoid meat, poultry, fish and DAIRY. But, allow themselves to consume eggs.
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: People under this level restricts meat, poultry and fish. However, they consume egg as well as dairy. This is the most common type of vegetarian across the globe.
A vegetarian diet is naturally low in fats and high in fiber, but being vegetarian has its own risks. So no matter at what level you happen to fall, and no matter what reason you have chosen to commit to it , there are both pros and cons of being vegetarian. Here are few of them:
Pros of Vegetarianism:
- Improves colon health: Fibers present in a plant-based vegetarian diet helps to maintain a healthy colon by improving the good bacteria within it. That’s because fiber is what helps feed those healthy bacteria. It also helps to cleanse the colon when supplemented with optimal water intake. Why? Because fiber can act like a chimney sweeper and remove any excess waste. The risk of colon cancer and constipation decreases with a high fiber vegetarian diet. On the flip side, meats and poultry takes time to digest and thus disrupts the natural balance in the body. They also don’t feed the friendly bacteria in our guts which are required to maintain a healthy gut lining.
- Improves the heart rate: A vegetarian diet can help lower cholesterol, and blood pressure, aiding in the prevention of heart disease. A vegetarian diet can help to achieve these benefits as long as it includes food sources with potassium and dietary fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.
- Reduces risk of Kidney stones: Diet high in animal proteins leads body to excrete calcium, oxalate and uric acid. These are the major components of kidney stones. A diet high in animal protein have higher risk of Kidney stones in USA (15% of men and 7% of women) than diets rich in Vegetarian proteins.
- Reduces risk of Cancer: Vegetarians show up to 40% less chance of developing cancer. Also, diets high in animal protein were associated with a 4-fold increase in cancer death risk compared to high protein diets based on plant-derived protein sources (figures based on 2014 study). The changes of contamination are high among meat eaters, on the flip side, consuming enough fruits and vegetables as part of vegetarian diet will help to build up strong immunity and fight cancer cells.
- Lowers risk of Diabetes: Consumption of meat and processed meat increases the risk of Type 2 Diabetes in both men and women. On the other hand, vegetarian diets rich in whole grains, nuts, legumes and fibers improves the glycemic control in the people who already have diabetes.
- Capable of delivering complete nutrition: When Vegetarian meals are optimally planned, all essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals can be supplied to the body. USDA and FAO of UN says “meat is not an essential part of healthy diet”
- Weight loss: Vegetarian diet being high in fiber and low in fat helps one to reduce weight or at least prevent gaining those extra pounds from the high fat non vegetarian food.
- Helps alleviate World’s hunger: There has been debate about insufficiency of our food supply if the entire world refuses to eat a primarily vegetarian diet. Grains and vegetarian food are required to feed animals and rear livestock in order to produce more meat (Over 10 pounds of plant protein is fed to produce one pound of beef). If that food were diverted for human consumption, world’s hunger can be alleviated.
- Ethical view-point: Merciless killing of animals in the name of producing a food supply is on the rise. Cutting out animal products from our diet is a gentler kinder way to live as these warm blooded animals have emotions and can experience stress, pain and fear too. The less demand there will be for meat products, the fewer animals will be raised for slaughter.
- For the sake of Nature: There are negative effects of raising livestock on environment. They produce more greenhouse gases than cars. Being vegetarian is one way to reduce carbon footprints and save the planet.
Cons of Vegetarianism:
- Lack of Nutrition: Strict vegans/vegetarians might be missing on some of the nutrients like Omega 3 fatty acids (crucial for brain function), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D(crucial for bone health). Meeting protein needs gets hard, too, if meals aren’t planned well. While there are many good sources of iron for vegetarians, the bioavailability of that is lesser compared to non- vegetarian sources of Iron.
- May still not be such a healthy choice: Vegetarianism doesn’t automatically mean you have made a healthy choice as it largely depends on the meal choices one makes. A vegetarian diet (if majorly relying on sugar, processed food, fries, refined food, high fructose corn syrup, and carbonated beverages) can possibly be harmful meal choices. An Oreo cookie is vegan. That doesn’t make it healthy.
- Use of herbicides and pesticides: To improve production of crops and maintain quality. Numerous chemicals are used in the soil, residues of which can be found in the plant and can find its way to the human body.
- The Notion that Vegetarians live longer can be a myth: Undoubtedly choosing high fibrous fresh vegetarian meal is the best choice. Choosing not-so-healthy vegetarian meals coupled with a faulty lifestyle like excessive smoking, frequent drinking, lack of physical activity etc., can decrease your life expectancy (Animal protein or no animal protein)